A couple of weeks ago I attended the last retreat of this year’s Term Student program at my zen center. Since I shared the mandala from the last one, I thought I would also share this one, too.
These are always interesting to draw because there is no forethought put into it. The instruction is to draw something that represents what you have learned in the past 3 months. And then you just draw what bubbles up to the surface.
My vow for this term was to read the Heart Sutra everyday. The Heart Sutra is something that is chanted when our group meditates together, and it is kind of awesome. I feel very drawn to it and thought I would read it everyday and just see what I could learn from it, without having any prior agenda.
It turns out I learned a lot
The person in the middle is me (obviously). I have my hand over my heart. On my right is the suffering I go through sometimes: depression, sadness, heartbreak, etc. On the left is the good stuff: love, happiness, joy. Above me is (supposed to be) Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of compassion. On the ground below me are all of the things that have helped me learn and grow as a person. Books, my sketchbook, people/relationships. Something that is missing that I should have put there is a bottle of vitamins to represent the concept of taking care of myself.
So here is what I learned: I learned about self-compassion. I learned that it is OK to suffer. I learned not to turn away from suffering, but to fully embrace it. And in that suffering I should have compassion for myself. I can be the one to comfort myself when I am suffering, I have that power.
For some reason this has been a huge lesson for me. I have talked about this idea before, this idea of learning to love myself. But there has always been something missing. I feel like I have now found the missing piece. Self compassion is the missing piece.
I think in the past I have glossed over the suffering. Or I beat myself up for feeling bad. I think it’s because in our culture there is this idea that we are always supposed to be positive and happy. I think I’ve talked about this before too. Sometimes I just don’t have it in me to be positive, no matter how hard I “try.” Sometimes things just completely suck. Sometimes I am just sad. Sometimes I am reminded of something that makes me cry. Sometimes I am in a lot of physical pain. Sometimes things don’t go my way. Sometimes life is suffering. You know what: THIS IS NORMAL. This is a normal part of life. And when I am experiencing these moments of suffering I can actually give myself compassion, just like I would have compassion for a friend or loved one.
This has been a huge revelation for me. And I think it is changing my life. It is certainly changing my outlook on life. Those moments of suffering are happening a little less than they were. And when they do happen I can help myself by feeling compassion for myself, instead of beating myself up (which has been my standard m.o. most of my life) for not being “happy enough.”
So what does this have to do with the Heart Sutra? I’m still not exactly sure. I think I am still learning that lesson. To be quite honest, the words of the Heart Sutra don’t exactly make a lot of sense to me and those moments when they do make sense they freak me out because I think it is talking about the idea of no-self, which kind of freaks me out. But I am still drawn to it and I want to learn more about it. But, a serendipitous thing that I did learn these past few months: I learned that Avalokiteshvara (who is mentioned in the sutra) is the male embodiment of the Bodhisattva of compassion. I didn’t know this at the beginning of the three months. As Buddhism moved through China the Bodhisattva became female and the name became Guanyin, which translates to Kanzeon in Japanese. Kanzeon is the Bodhisattva at the top of my mandala, guiding my through this lesson of self-compassion. I started this thinking about how she could guide me and it looks like she did.
Side-note: If you are reading this and are interested in learning about self compassion, I can recommend Kristen Neff’s book: Self Compassion: The Proven Power of being Kind to Yourself. I mentioned in this blog post that I went to a workshop about compassion fatigue and this was one of the books recommended by the speaker.